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Gernander leads transition in Hartford

by Bruce Berlet || AHL On The Beat Archive

Ken Gernander was the face of the Hartford Wolf Pack for more than 13 years.

He has been pro hockey’s torchbearer in the Connecticut capital since the Hartford Whalers left town in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes.

Gernander was Wolf Pack captain for eight seasons and then retired and became the only player to have his number (12) raised to the XL Center rafters alongside luminaries such as Hockey Hall of Famers Gordie Howe and Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen, Ulf Samuelsson and Rick Ley.

Then Gernander was an assistant coach for two seasons under general manager/coach Jim Schoenfeld and became the bench boss for the 2007-08 campaign.

Friday night, Gernander appropriately was the head coach for the 1,177th and final Wolf Pack game at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport against the Sound Tigers. Unfortunately for Gernander, the Wolf Pack blew a three-goal lead in the final 6:21 and lost 4-3 in a shootout to finish 571(W)-346(L)-66(T)-49(OTL)-30(SOL) in the regular season. And they were 57-58 in 22 playoff series, winning their only Calder Cup title in 2000.

On Saturday night, Gernander helped usher in the Connecticut Whale era when the Sound Tigers visited the XL Center before 13,089, the second-largest crowd in the franchise’s 14-year history. The Whale twice surrendered a one-goal lead but won 3-2 in a shootout thanks to four saves by Chad Johnson and goals by Chad Kolarik and Jeremy Williams, whose turnover led to Wes O’Neill’s successful penalty shot that turned the tide in the Sound Tigers’ favor the previous night.

“I was more focused and concerned with getting a win than anything from the nostalgia standpoint,” said Gernander, who missed only 43 games in the Wolf Pack’s lifetime. “I hope becoming the Connecticut Whale generates some enthusiasm and support for these players, and it’s all towards creating a better hockey atmosphere in Hartford. That’s what we want, and if we attain our goal and it becomes a thriving hockey region, that’s great.

“These are good, talented kids who are working hard, and we want to see some excitement and enthusiasm from a hockey perspective. From a Hartford perspective, let’s get the XL Center buzzing and the downtown active and vibrant and make some strides. You look at what the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins or Hershey Bears do for their downtowns and their regions around the arena, and there’s no reason it can’t happen in Hartford.

“One of the lessons for our guys is that if you aspire to be a Ranger or aspire to be a NHLer, the best thing that you can do is to give everything that you’ve got right here. And if Hartford sees something in New York or Boston, let’s make something of Hartford. Let’s not naysay or worry about what goes on on either side of our border. Let’s make something special here. … I’m just worried about our guys and our team, and I’d like to see the best product that we can have from an entertainment perspective, from a hockey-playing perspective, from a community relations and support perspective. I think it should all go hand-in-hand, and it should be some sort of synergy.”

Gernander said he didn’t have any flashbacks Friday night, and being the pragmatist and straight shooter that he is, he knew it was back to work Saturday as coach of the same team with a different name in a continued attempt to try to revitalize the hockey market and possibly bring an NHL team back to Hartford.

“I’d known it was coming for awhile, so it wasn’t a shock,” Gernander said. “Regardless of what happened Friday night, we were still the Rangers’ top affiliate and I was still with the Rangers. But I don’t have any negatives with my time with the Wolf Pack, so it doesn’t put a negative (on becoming the Whale) either.

“Everything that transpired as far as me and the Wolf Pack and the New York Rangers has been first class. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Improving the local hockey market with an eye toward the NHL is the long-range goal of Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin, the former owner and managing general partner of the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers and NHL’s Hartford Whalers. Baldwin & Co. has been chasing that dream since January and hoped to have the Whale ready to go at the start of the season. But extended negotiations with AEG and the Rangers prevented Whalers Sports and Entertainment from taking over the team’s business operations until 21/2 weeks before the Wolf Pack started the season Oct. 8.

In a bit of irony, John Paddock, the man who coached the Wolf Pack to the only professional title in Hartford’s 35-year hockey history with Gernander as his captain in 2000, was behind the Adirondack Phantoms’ bench Sunday for the second game in Whale history. Gernander won the last matchup of student-mentor, as Cameron Talbot made 25 saves and Kris Newbury, Evgeny Grachev and Kolarik scored in the third period for a 3-0 victory. Paddock, inducted into the AHL Hall of Fame in January, started the season as assistant general manager of the parent Philadelphia Flyers before taking over as Phantoms’ coach when Greg Gilbert was fired Nov. 8 when the team was 2-10-0-1.

Having already gone head-to-head with his former coach, Gernander didn’t put a lot of stock into their latest matchup. But he gushed about the influence of Paddock, the third winningest coach in AHL history.

“He gave me a few tips along the way,” Gernander said, “and I appreciate that he was a man of few words and that when he spoke it was obviously for a purpose.”

Gernander said his style has varied depending on his team but has always admired how Paddock guides his teams.

“Sometimes you feel the situation requires a little more teaching, so there’s obviously more talking and involvement,” Gernander said. “But I liked Pads’ approach. It was no-nonsense, pretty simple and obviously very straightforward. I really appreciated how he operated. He didn’t sugarcoat anything or expound with a lot of words.

“What he had on his mind he said and he meant, and you were to carry it out. I think he had a great deal of respect from the players. He had a good understanding of what they were doing, what they were going through, and he was demanding, which is great. Everybody is here to be the best that he can be, so if you’ve got someone who is going to raise the bar of expectations, that’s great.”

There have been continued high expectations for the AHL’s winningest team since the Wolf Pack replaced the Whalers as Hartford’s pro hockey team. After the worst start in franchise history (4-10-2-2), a 4-1-0-1 run with a 10th one-goal loss tossed in has Gernander feeling better about the prospects of not missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year after going 12-for-12.

The Whale was helped by the Nov. 19 return of right wing Dale Weise, who scored in his second and third games after missing 15 games because of an ailing hand that required surgery. Weise replaced Brodie Dupont, who needed 16 stitches to close a gash above his left knee after being cut by the skate of a Manchester Monarchs player in a 4-3 loss Nov. 17. Dupont returned Saturday and scored his second goal of the season.

The only other hockey person with the Wolf Pack since Day One is play-by-play announcer Bob Crawford, who has missed only three games while doubling as the director of public relations the past few years.

“I’ve been around Kenny so long that I almost don’t know if I fully appreciate him like I should,” Crawford said. “He’s just the consummate professional. I had a chance to watch him go about his business as a player, an assistant coach and a coach, and in all those roles, he has always been so dedicated to doing things the right way. Leading by example is kind of a cliché in sports, but I think he’s really one guy who models the right kind of way of going about things and the right kind of way of behavior rather than talks about it.”

Crawford said Gernander has always expected more of himself than he does of anybody else, which has made Crawford want to match the player/coach’s dedication and support him in every endeavor.

“I would think that if I’m a player that he’d be a guy who would be great to play for just because you know he’s always going to give his best and always going to be pointed in the right direction,” Crawford said. “All you’d have to do is do what he tells you to do and you’re pretty well assured of success. He takes (bad times) out on himself and isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to say it’s just the wrong combination of players or that the players aren’t pulling their end. He’s going to watch more tape, worry more and think more and put his nose further to the grindstone.

“When you’re a player, you only have to worry about getting one guy ready to play. When you’re a coach, you’ve got to worry about 20 guys, and that’s a heck of a responsibility if you’ve got a few guys who just aren’t ready to go or thinks of everything that you’re trying to do.”

Gernander was the franchise captain his last 10 seasons and the Wolf Pack’s all-time leader in shorthanded goals (14), plus-minus (plus-93), games played (599) and playoff games played (78). He also ranked second all-time in goals (160), assists (187), points (347), power-play goals (50) and game-winning goals (30). But he was rarely called up by the Rangers, playing in only 27 NHL games, 15 in the playoffs, and finishing with two goals and three assists.

After retiring as a player after the 2004-05 season, Gernander was an assistant coach under Schoenfeld and is now in his fourth season as head coach. He retired as the AHL’s all-time leader in career playoff games played (123) and is the second all-time leading scorer among American-born players (624 points in 973 games). He twice won the AHL’s Fred T. Hunt Award for sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey and has the most coaching victories in franchise history (138), having passed Paddock’s 130 at the end of last season.

“Kenny was the type of player who was totally committed,” Schoenfeld said. “He was committed to his job, to his teammates, to the positive outcome of the season. And that makeup in the man hasn’t changed in the coach. Players are not easily fooled. They can see through the guy that is not legitimate. They know that Kenny’s the real guy.”

Gernander especially proved that in the Wolf Pack’s Conference-Final playoff series with Saint John in 1998. Gernander played four years at the University of Minnesota and was the Winnipeg Jets’ fifth-round pick in 1987 before starting his 14-year pro career, the last 11 in the Rangers organization. His most trying moments came when he felt fatigued after the Wolf Pack and Flames split the first two games of their series. He thought it was because it was the end of the season and the playoffs, but he thought wrong.

“I had chest pains at times and all kinds of diagnosis from (teammates) Todd Hall and Chris Winnes,” Gernander recalled. “I coughed up a blood clot in our room at one point, and we dismissed that as sinuses. But there were a couple of things that led me to believe something wasn’t right.”

After he and the Wolf Pack returned to Hartford, he began to feel worse, so he went to the hospital at 4 a.m. for some tests that didn’t show anything out of order. The pain then began to subside, so Gernander went home and then to practice, where trainer Tim Macre said, “You look awful. You’re all gray. We’ve got to get you in the hospital and looked at.”

Gernander returned to the hospital for several more tests from Dr. David Grise that showed Gernander had a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in his lung.

“I think it could very easily have been missed,” Gernander said. “But I think given the history that the two of us had, he did some tests that probably wouldn’t have showed that was anything wrong except for the fact that he knew I was a pro athlete and that my levels should have been a lot higher for someone who had that kind of conditioning. So he kept probing until he ordered a final test that showed I had something life-threatening.”

The Wolf Pack were eliminated when they lost the next three games at home, though Gernander, showing his captaincy aplomb, got out of sick bay and went behind the bench for Game 5, which turned out to be the series finale.

“I made it back for moral support,” Gernander said.

Despite his love of the Wolf Pack/Whale, Gernander, who lives in New Britain, had always saved his biggest support for his wife, Kerby, and their three children – McKenna, 11, Micah, 9, and Miranda, 5. McKenna and Micah play hockey, and Miranda might soon be following them.

The three M’s couldn’t have a better role model than their dad.